Friday, 16 November 2012

Why 'Crónica'?

by Liliana Nogueira-Pache

Who would have guessed, when I was 18 years old, that Gabriel Garcia Marquez, along with Virginia Woolf, would become the author whose novels I would read most?  One Hundred Years of Solitude was the start of my passion for Márquez.  It was a book that captured me from the first line and, just as it was for Aureliano Buendia, it was “muchos años después” (many years later), that I faced not “a un pelotón de  fusilamiento” (the firing squad) but a class of AL pupils who I wanted to imbue with my culture (while not focusing exclusively on Spain), when I started my journey in PGS one day way back in 1994.  And that was when I changed the Catalan author, Carmen Laforet, for the Columbian.

One Hundred Years of Solitude might appear be an injudicious choice.  There are sixteen characters called Aureliano Buendía, and, if we are going to start off with magic realism, we should do so in small doses.  So Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) was my choice.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Violence is a key theme in Latin American literature, and why wouldn’t it be. It is our daily bread. You only need to open a newspaper or listen to the news to be drenched in blood-soaked stories of drug traffickers, riots and assassinations.  Crónica is also based on a true story.  The code of honour is the motive. The book, even before it is opened, tells us that it is about a murder --- that is an open secret.  It continues on the first page, revealing the identity of the victim: “No se moleste, Luisa Santiaga, ya lo mataron” (Don’t bother yourself, Luisa Santiaga, they’ve already killed him). 

How can the author keep the interest of the reader during the following four chapters?  The reconstruction of the time from when Santiago Nasar gets up at 5.30 in the morning to the moment he is disembowelled in the square in full view of the whole village an hour and a half later is detailed in flashbacks --- not only the movements of the victim and his assassins and of those who came to know what was going to happen, but the personalities of all those implicated in this five-act tragedy.
The strength of the images, the humour, the symbolism, the omens and the power of destiny are so well woven together in this short novel that it has become widely regarded as one of the best detective stories written in the last thirty years. The rhythm of the narrative, along with the ability to connect the most disparate situations in ways that seem logical and natural are the qualities that make this short story a great piece of literature.

The fluid descriptions of characters are intertwined with the storyline at a breathless rhythm, the memories of the reconstruction interlaced with the to-and-fro of time, in a way only possible if the magician of time and space is also a conjuror of words.  And that is why the story of the death of Santiago comes to life from the first page. We don’t only meet with the central characters but meet the neighbours of the Nasar family, we find out what they do and think, even though we may not come across them again in the story, and it is because they form part of the amalgam that makes up life.  Like ours, when we cross paths with the lady from number 26 who is out walking her dog, or the newspaper boy delivering the morning papers, or the young shop assistant in Goldchem dressed in her hijab listening to her i-player --- the mundane nature of daily life, details of which infiltrate our existence. 

From the first moment the victim (who is already dead) appears fully alive and, with him, the village and all those who live there.  His strength and his vitality continue until the moment when he says “que me mataron, niña Wene” (they have killed me, Wene child), his last words before he collapses dead, and thus ends the narration announcing his own death.

And in each chapter, chapters without names, Santiago dies.  He dies five times, ending the cycle of his life around those who will kill him and those passive observers who “empiezan a tomar posiciones en la plaza para presenciar el crimen” (begin to take their places around the square to observe the crime).  Like in the bullring.  Like our own death.  It is ours alone.  And death is, in reality, the main character.  The story of death.  The reconstruction of a death recreated twenty three years later.

Even so, this chronicle is not a black chronicle and Márquez gives us a nod and a wink, especially when he intercalates a soap opera of a story, which is the cause of this absurd tangle: the deranged love of Angela for the cuckolded husband to whom she has written 2,000 love letters.  During the sixteen years that pass without a reply, she spends her time in embroidery, like a Caribbean Penelope hoping that this time destiny will give her another opportunity, waiting for Bayardo to return, not as handsome and haughty as when he arrived “buscando novia con quien casarse” (looking for a fiancée to marry), but to stay.

And life is like that, a tragicomedy wrapped in improbable coincidences, and there is no one better than Gabriel García Márquez to tell the story. Because nobody who could describe Santiago with his stomach emptied writing “entró caminando con sus propias entrañas, como un ramo de rosas(he walked in holding his own guts, like a bunch of roses) could ever defraud us.  We might not like it, but it will always surprise us.

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